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Christianity – some basics

Would you like to know more about the Christian faith? Here’s a short guide: how it began, its beliefs and practices plus, help if you’d like to explore it further.


Who are Christians?

Christians are a worldwide movement of people inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, a 1st century Jewish religious teacher.  The movement became known as 'Christianity': a distinct religion which became separate from its origins in Judaism.

The Queen Victoria pearl crucifix

From small beginnings the movement spread rapidly through the Mediterranean world, and eventually reached all parts of the world. Christians currently number about 2.4 billion people, about 33% of the world's total population. They are spread through every continent. They form the predominant religious movement in Europe, North America, Central and South America, and Southern Africa, but also have a significant presence in the Middle East and many other parts of Asia.

Over the centuries the movement formed itself into a variety of organised bodies or institutions, called churches. Historically the three main bodies have been the Roman Catholic Church (in Latin and Eastern rites), the Orthodox Churches which separated from the wider Catholic Church after the Great Schism of 1054, and the Anglican and Protestant Churches which emerged from the reformations of the sixteenth century. There are also many groups and individuals who identify themselves as Christians without belonging to any of the historic established churches. Westminster Abbey is part of the Church of England, a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and therefore both catholic and reformed.

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and anti-Nazi protestor

These various churches and groups have developed different ways of ordering their life and worship. Many of these differences simply reflect the different culture in which they have been formed. There are also some underlying differences of belief. This has historically led to conflict. But now there is widespread co-operation between churches, and an increasing recognition of how much all Christians hold in common.

Throughout its 2,000 year history the Christian movement as a whole has had huge impact on wider world history, and especially the formation of western culture. It has contributed significantly to education, law, human equality, human rights, social welfare, the rise of science, as well as to art, architecture, and literature. Its greatest impact, however, is on the personal lives of countless individuals – people of all kinds and in all cultures.

I have, by God's grace, learned as a member of the Christian community… that I start each day not as a finished saint but as a needy person still struggling to grow

- Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

As with other religious movements, Christianity also has a shameful side to its history. It has sometimes been used abusively and oppressively. But its original, truest, and most authentic spiritual DNA is the life of Jesus Christ which calls us to humility and a life of service. So it is a movement which is always ready to reform; always seeking forgiveness; always trying to learn from mistakes and serve the world better. This means that Christians are not people who think they are better than others. They are people who know they are not! They are people who know they need constantly to draw on God's help - which they find above all in the life of Jesus Christ.


What do Christians believe?

Wall painting of Christ's hand holding a globe of the world
If God is the ultimate source of all concrete, individual, things, events, persons, then God Himself must be concrete, individual and personal in the highest degree…

- CS Lewis, English writer, scholar and poet

At the core of Christian belief is an objectively real personal God uniquely revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Christians understand the nature of this God especially through stories told in the Bible (a collection of early Jewish and Christian writings). Prayerful reflection on these writings, and on wider experience of the world, continues to shape Christian beliefs.

In these biblical stories, God is portrayed as an infinitely good creative power who brought the whole universe into being, sustains it, and eventually brings it to a fulfilment in eternity. Within this universe God has a unique relationship with humanity.  God interacts with us all, as individuals and societies, to inspire the best in us and offer remedy for our failings. The main setting for this in these biblical stories, to begin with, is the early history of the Jewish people. But the pivotal part of the drama is then found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - where God's nature and purposes are shown to embrace the whole world.

This picture of God includes much mystery. The way in which God creates, sustains, steers, natural and human history is largely opaque, invisible to normal scientific enquiry. The reasons why God allows great evil and suffering to persist are hard to fathom. But the overall character and purposes of God are still clear. In Christ's life we see that God is supremely a power of love whose purposes are always compassion, justice, forgiveness. In Christ's death we see the extreme lengths to which God's love goes in order to achieve those purposes. In Christ's resurrection we see that this love is ultimately irresistible. And in the Spirit of Christ we can continue to experience this love.

Not only do we not know God except through Jesus Christ, we do not know ourselves except through Jesus Christ

- Pascal, 17th century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and theologian

Through Christ and His Spirit we are also given a window onto the nature of God's inner being, not just God's action and purposes. We see God to be love: an eternal movement of love within God's own being, not just in relation to the world. This is why Christians have come to describe God as Trinity: i.e. as one God who comprises three ways of being God uniquely bound together in love (Father, Son, and Spirit).

Faith is needed to believe and experience God in this way. Faith is not opposed to reason and experience - it constantly tests itself against reason and experience. However, it is a special way of knowing because it only arises in personal relationship with God. Different churches place different emphasis on various ways in which this relationship of faith is nurtured. But all Christians agree that personal prayer, worship, social action, ritual acts of baptism and communion, play some part.

Christians hope for others to have this faith and belief too. But they do not believe God is only concerned with people who have Christian faith. They believe that Christ lived and died as an act of divine love and forgiveness with power to reach us all and transform us all - whether or not we are confessing Christians.


What do Christians do?

High altar mosaic showing Jesus and his disciples
What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

- The Prophet Micah

What Christians do is intrinsic to who they are and what they believe. That means, above all, that they should always be inspired by divine love.

Worship is the first instinctive response to this divine love; an acknowledgement of its supreme value. Another instinctive response is humility; an acknowledgement that we cannot fully join in the movement of divine love without divine help. That is why Christians in worship ask for the Spirit of Christ to inspire and inhabit them. This kind of worship and prayer is an intensely personal activity, but it is not solitary. Christians pray a good deal on their own, but they also find that God's presence and help (God's 'grace') is most assured when they worship together.  So they also meet together regularly for prayer, bible reading, and communion. 'Communion' re-enacts the last meal Jesus had with his followers before he died. The bread and wine of that meal have become special vehicles of grace when they are received in faith.

The love of God which inspires Christians to worship should also inspire and guide their whole life and all they do. It is not primarily a sentimental love, but an active and practical love. The love seen in Christ is compassionate and forgiving, and Christians are called to be compassionate, forgiving people. It is also a burning concern for justice, not least for the disadvantaged or marginalised people of our world. In some cultures Christians have been slow to see injustice or discrimination and slow to act. But at best Christians have been historically at the forefront of movements for justice: for example, to abolish slavery, alleviate poverty, advance education. They continue to press for this at local, national, and global levels. They also express love and care for God's wider world by supporting environmental movements.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind…and love your neighbour as yourself.

- Jesus Christ

Christians also set much store on study and critical reflection. They study the wider world as well as the particular events of Jesus Christ. One reason for this is the sheer wonder and mystery of God's world. Another reason is the recognition that God speaks through the whole of the natural and human world, so all honest study is a form of prayer (i.e. a way of listening). Trying to understand the ways of God in the world within the limits of our finite minds ('theology') is a continuous task. It is part of 'loving God with all our mind', as well as with heart and soul.

Last but not least Christians find themselves impelled to share their faith with others. The generous nature of God, the experience of divine love, and the explicit command of Jesus Christ to 'tell the good news', make this a priority. Christians have not always shared their faith well or wisely. But it remains a vital part of the Churches' overall mission.

That overall mission is above all a mission of service to the world, not a mission to rule over it. Worship, prayer, social action, study, and sharing faith are all part of this mission of service. They are all a response to divine love - the heart of Christian faith.


Like to know more?

See the Church of England and the Christian Enquiry Agency for more information.

Further reading

Alister McGrath: The Landscape of Faith: An explorer's guide to the Christian creeds

Rowan Williams: Being a Christian

Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief

CS Lewis: Mere Christianity

Interested in becoming part of the Christian movement?

Why not join our congregation? We have been a place of worship since the tenth century and we hold daily services, which you are welcome to attend.

We have chaplains available who are happy to discuss the Christian faith with you.

Or, find a church near you.

At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.

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Vanessa, Head of Conservation

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